A U.S. federal judge has ruled that hundreds of documents detailing the Central Intelligence Agency's now-shuttered overseas secret detention program of suspected terrorists, including extreme interrogation methods, may be kept secret.
U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein on Wednesday refused to release documents describing Central Intelligence Agency terror interrogations, and the names of detainees or CIA contractors involved in the secret rendition program. He said he would defer to the CIA's judgment on the need to keep the papers secret in order to protect intelligence methods and sources.
The American Civil Liberties Union had asked for the release of 580 documents, including some that describe videotapes of CIA interrogations using extreme techniques, such as waterboarding, or simulated drowning. The CIA destroyed the actual videotapes in 2005.
The ACLU argued that the CIA secret program was illegal under international and U.S. law, that it involved the torture and deaths of some inmates, and therefore should not be shielded from public view.
Hellerstein said that he would not rule on whether or not the methods and practices described in the documents were legal. He said he agonized about such decisions but that in what he called a "post-9/11 world," he would not question the CIA's judgement about how to protect the intelligence gathering.
CIA Director Leon Panetta had argued in a court filing that releasing the documents would "gravely" damage national security.
Judge Hellerstein said he had examined a sample of the contested documents in his chambers prior to the hearing, and had found two that could be partially released. But he gave the government two weeks to submit arguments against even a partial release.
ACLU attorney Alex Abdo called the ruling disappointing. He noted that the CIA secret rendition program and "enhanced" interrogation techniques such as waterboading have been banned, and that other documents describing them were ordered released by President Obama last April.
"The judge deferred wholesale to the CIA's determinations that information that is very similar to what the CIA has already released should remain secret," he said. "We think the history of this case makes clear that the CIA has continually used national security as a pretext for keeping secret embarrassing information and information about illegal government activity. "
Justice Department attorneys who argued for the government declined to comment on the ruling. The Justice Department is carrying out a separate criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of the videotaped interrogations in 2005.